Paddling southwest Tasmania

By Paul Karis 31 March 2016
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Paddling Tasmania’s dangerous waters can be tricky at the best of times. Paddling the formidable and unchartered southwest coast requires plenty of preparation, the right gear and a healthy dose of optimism.

WE WOKE TO the sound of pounding surf. Ketchum Bay was closing out with eight-foot monsters, but we really didn’t want to stick around. We were already eight days in and running out of time.

After watching the sets roll in, we figured we had between one-and-a-half and two minutes to get from the impact zone to backline. I was doubtful; not so my good buddy, kayaking companion, incurable optimist and all-round prince of positivity Pete Rand. 

“Heaps of time!” he pronounced as he launched himself into the fray.

It wasn’t long before Pete was side surfing his 6m boat all the way back to shore, nursing a deep cut to his hand and half his deck gear hanging loose after the flogging.

I went next, lifting to high cadence when it looked clear. Oh shit, set wave! Do not hesitate now. Paddle, paddle, paddle… I fully launched my boat clean out of the water over the curling demon.

Pete made it out on his second attempt after repairing his badly cut hand, stowing his gear, and having a little talk with himself to get pumped. Just as well. I had the tent and the stove and I wasn’t going back for him.

Later that night at Deadmans Bay, Pete stood to full height, stretched his arms over his head and said: “This is how big the white water was that nailed me!”

It was six months before our heart-stopping episode at Ketchum Bay that we first began hatching a plan to sea kayak the 300km from Strahan to Cockle Creek around Tasmania’s rugged southwest coast. It would be a test: a great journey, but most definitely a test. Some of the tales are horrific. Guys being cartwheeled down the faces of rogue waves, beach landings closed out to monstrous surf, miles of cliff sections, paddlers rafted up for a night at sea…

Yet the remoteness and beauty of the untouched and rarely explored wilderness called to me. Fuelled by late night sessions on Google Earth, I zoomed in on every beach, bay, cove and gulch and it looked amazing. I had to go. My “glass half full” adventure buddy Pete would make a fine companion.

Over the years I’ve ticked off a few solid trips including Bass Strait, but I still had a lot of trepidation about the southwest. Meticulous planning seemed to ease the mind. The boat was overhauled bow to stern. Plenty of new gear was commandeered, including a personal locator beacon, marine radio, flares, GPS and a new buoyancy vest to fit all this stuff in.

Pete and I Skype-ed long into the night, comparing notes on the best spots to break, lunch, overnight and evacuate in an emergency.

Comments like, “McKays Gulch is loaded with crays” sent me into over-froth. Pete worked off topographic maps while I used marine charts. Some of these parts hadn’t been surveyed since Captain James Cook passed through, so good data on land features was essential for cross-referencing. (Navigation, especially at sea, is not one of my strengths: “Keep Tassie on your left!” yelled a mate on departure).

The last weeks of summer would hopefully bring calm weather just before the winter low pressures pushed up from Antarctica, and near-perfect conditions when we set out from Hells Gates Macquarie Harbour seemed to confirm that.

The wild side of life

The forecast was for a three to four-metre swell and light NW winds. The paddling was ideal. Then we rounded Cape Sorell and the wildness of the open ocean gatecrashed our consciousness. Things we’d read about or been told by those who knew these parts were suddenly making sense.

“You should expect to regularly encounter swells twice the size of the reported average,” was one piece of advice that came to mind as an 8m monster rolled over a reef 100m off our bow. Impressive. And terrifying. We’d need to keep a look out for these as we threaded our way through the many shallow reefs over the coming days.

My left shoulder ached with every stroke. Eight-and-a-half hours’ paddling with a laden boat was not the ideal way to ease into a multiday trip.

We’d also been warned about the effect of large swell combined with a big swell period (the time between each wave). It causes the swell to push deep into the bays and beaches making landings heinous. This had weighed on our minds all day, as potential camp spots can be few and far between.

Dismayed with the wild conditions at our planned overnighter at Hibbs Lagoon, we wearily pushed on a few more kilometres to Sanctuary Cove, lying sheltered in the lee of the Hibbs Pyramid monolith. Exhausted but exhilarated we stoked up a driftwood fire and enjoyed the feeling of stretching out flat on our backs. Day one done!

Routine excitement

By 12.30pm we were approaching Christmas Cove with trepidation. The bay seemed to be closing out with solid sets and the thought of paddling another 15km to the next landing was soul destroying.

As we drew closer, there appeared to be a narrow channel bisecting the bay to the mouth of the Wanderer River. Trying to not look over our shoulders every few seconds for rogue sets, we threaded the needle and arrived at the jewel in the crown of Tassie’s southwest. The beauty of this truly wild place was startling. As we explored upstream later that day, we pondered how many people had witnessed this; it’s practically inaccessible except to sea kayakers. Whatever happened from here on in would be a bonus. The sun blazed and we soaked it in. The departing warm rays brought on the evening with a delicious dinner of spaghetti bolognaise.

We started to find our routine. My first job was to get the macchinetta fired up for the much-needed espresso hit after our 4.44am alarm (the optimist insisted things work out well when you get up early). At sea, life was also starting to get comfortable. Pete and I would raft up every hour to have a quick snack, pee into bottles, check our bearings and then grind out another hour. The marine charts took on meaning; nautical miles and speed in knots made more sense than metric measurements. We were finding our rhythm.

Day three was to be a crux day. Ahead were 55km traversing the reef-riddled coast from High Rocky Point to Low Rocky Point. The swell coming from the southwest at less than 3m should make it okay. Rounding Low Rocky Point, Pete saw a tuna jump out of the water. “Get a line out mate!” he shouted.

I paddled toward the action. Three, two, one, bam! A tuna hits and while I fumble around trying to release the hand line and balance in the choppy water, the fish robs me of my $25 lure. It was all of about two seconds of intense excitement. I’d be better prepared next time.

As the afternoon drew on, we slid into Giblin River in Nye Bay, another astonishing piece of wilderness that would become home for the next couple of days. Gale force southwesterly winds and a 5m swell pounded the coast and kept us confined to our sheltered shanty camp a couple of kilometres upstream. The days passed with ease and our bodies loved the inactivity. An evening satellite phone call to our weather guy confirmed easing conditions and the alarm was set for 4.44am.

The ends of the Earth

Day Six marked the official last day of summer and the west coast turned it on; light offshore winds and not a cloud in the sky. We powered down the coast and had the pleasant surprise of underestimating our position (one of the benefits of being a pessimist).

This section of coast is has not been surveyed and is not easy to navigate. Some hairy manoeuvres between the reefs of West Pyramid and Sharks Jaw brought us to North Head and the entrance to Port Davey. A little grumpy after seven-and-a-half hours of paddling with no lunch, we arrived at Spain Bay where Pete had organised a food drop. We tore into the bag and took the top off a cold Boag’s to celebrate a major milestone.

That afternoon I hiked over the headland to Stephens Bay and watched perfect waves roll in without another soul to be found. You could spend weeks just exploring Port Davey.

Rounding South West Cape was a highlight. The collision of big swell with the steep cliffs flanking its western side makes for quite a show. At this point there is nothing between you and Antarctica, which is a bit like that eerie feeling of swimming in really deep water. We hugged the coast as close as we dared.

“Tuna country, PK! Get your line out,” Pete said. I get a hit and line starts to strip. My lure, steel trace and rig were holding but the line was running at an alarming pace. I struggled to slow the spool on my deck, then one more surge and everything was gone. Damn!

Pete laughed. “You’ve been spooled, mate!”

Thoughts of fresh sashimi perished but seafood was still on my mind.

Arriving at Ketchum Bay, we set up camp and went foraging for crayfish and abalone. In frigid water with thin wetsuit tops we lasted about 15 minutes. Pete just missed out on bagging some crawlers but salvaged a couple of dinner-plate-sized abs. Cooked in their shells with olive oil and garlic on a bed of coals, they were bloody delicious.

After the drama of our departure from the bay, the paddle to Deadmans Cove was a breeze.

Our last day to Cockle Creek passed in a dreamy haze. There wasn’t a breath of wind as we ploughed our way along, dreaming of fresh steaks and cold beer. The wild South West had lived up to its reputation. It had been an incredible, testing and unforgettable journey, and one made all the better by travelling with an optimist.

This article originally appeared in the Jan-Feb 2016 issue of Australian Geographic Outdoor magazine.